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Ypsomed chairman named Master Entrepreneur

Willy Michel is chairman of Ypsomed, which made its stock exchange debut last year

(Keystone)

Willy Michel has built up two successful high tech Swiss companies, a feat that has won him a Master Entrepreneur award from Ernst & Young Switzerland.

It is only the second time in the eight-year history of the Swiss Entrepreneur of the Year competition that the jury has granted the distinction.

The first businessperson recognised by the competition's jury was Louis Max Widmer, founder of the skin care and cosmetics company that bears his name, in 2003.

Michel, who is 57 years old, is chairman of the board of Burgdorf-based medical technology firm Ypsomed AG, which made its stock exchange debut one year ago. His first business was Disetronic, set up to develop reliable insulin pumps, which was sold to pharmaceuticals firm Roche in 2003.

"Without a rich family behind him, Willy Michel created two strong public companies," commented Heinrich Christen, the Ernst & Young partner responsible for the competition.

Indeed the story of Michel's rise read like a European version of the American dream. His working life began with an apprenticeship as a lab technician at what is now Novartis in Basel, followed by training in marketing and qualification as a pharmaceutical representative for international pharma companies.

Market opportunity

It was while working for Novo Nordisk in the early nineties, that Michel saw a market opportunity in the emerging medical technology field.

Several major manufacturers were developing insulin pumps at the time, including Germany's Siemens and United States-based Eli Lilly. But Michel believed that tapping Swiss know-how in micro-mechanical engineering and microtechnology manufacturing techniques would lead to a better pump.

His hunch was right. The engineers he hired at Disetronic AG in Burgdorf, which he founded with his physicist brother Peter, successfully developed reliable insulin pumps which were adopted by big name drug companies.

The firm was floated on the stock exchange in 1996. Seven years later Michel sold his share of the company to Roche, but kept the drug injection systems division and named it Ypsomed.

Its flotation in 2004 successfully raised the capital to build a state-of-the-art production facility for a drug injection pen that a customer, Aventis, required in large volumes.

The pen-like devices are used for injecting insulin and growth hormones.

"He's very engaged, and has a very deep knowledge of his industry. He eats, breathes, and sleeps this business," Christen told swissinfo.

Team work

Michel is modest in the assessment of his success. "I was lucky enough to have good people, good products, and good relationships with our business partners," he said, pointing out that the managing director for marketing had been with him for more than 13 years, his in-house legal counsel 15 years, and director of production likewise.

That ability to promote and develop skilled management was acknowledged by the jury, according to Christen.

"Michel has some strong people around him and he even says himself that the business could run without him. He is not a micro-manager. He gives the management a lot of power to make decisions," Christen told swissinfo.

But it is not only business savvy that inspired the award. Social and cultural commitments are an important aspect, according to the competition organisers. "Willy Michel is living proof that entrepreneurship does not stop at your own factory gates," said Ernst & Young in a statement.

The entrepreneur's social and cultural commitments are many. The most prominent expression of that commitment is probably the funding of a museum in Burgdorf that houses the works of the photo realistic artist, Franz Gertsch.

swissinfo, Valerie Thompson

Key facts

Ypsomed was created in 2003 from one of the two divisions formerly owned by the Disetronic Group.
The company has more than 18 years' experience in the development and manufacture of injection pens and pen needles.
Ypsomed is headquartered in Burgdorf, Switzerland, and employs over 900 people at several production sites in Switzerland and throughout a European sales and distribution network.

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